Lebanese revolution comes full circle with the first anniversary

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The return of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri as head of a government which could avert economic collapse in Lebanon is a real possibility only days before the anniversary of the revolution that came one year ago this month. This is a twist of fate for the Lebanese people who brought down, through democratic protests, the government under Hariri. Lebanon is in dire need of a bailout and France has now conditioned financial support to some much needed political reforms in the government.

At the same time, Lebanon and Israel will start negotiations brokered by the United States to resolve a maritime dispute over contested waters of the two countries. It will be the first time in three decades for direct talks between them to take place. This diplomatic feat comes amidst American victories under deals that normalize relations between Israel and two Gulf countries. But Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic ties and unresolved issues with their boundaries, namely the “blue line” for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon demarcated by the United Nations in 2000.

The negotiations come amidst a severe crisis in Lebanon, with the political class under fire, while the country faces drastic debt, soaring poverty, and unemployment. Estimates indicate that the exclusive economic zone with Lebanon contains up to 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This would be an enormous windfall for a country whose market is in ruins. Negotiations over a new government have stalled with fighting about posts and control of ministries, as Hezbollah stays the critical power broker.

The issue is whether progress for the maritime dispute could send fresh momentum to solving other problems in Lebanon. There is the unsettled matter of Shebaa Farms, a small strip of disputed land at the intersection for the border between Lebanon and Syria, and the Golan Heights under the control of Israel that has inflamed tensions and given justification for the “narrative of resistance” from Hezbollah, which has adopted Shebaa Farms, as well as other disputed territories, such as the village of Ghajar, to maintain the pretext for such armed resistance to Israel.

A main element of Hezbollah is opposition to Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah fought a war with the country which fueled its rhetoric as the defender against Israeli aggression and has cultivated the image of “vanguard of resistance” against such Zionist regime and American domination. The United States designates Hezbollah a terrorist group and sanctions its allies, such as former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. It is ironic that Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, had unveiled the maritime talks and noted that gas fields in the area can alleviate the debt.

If the negotiations are successful, this could in theory weaken Hezbollah by eliminating the threat of war, which is what the United States desires. The possibility of exploiting the gas fields could also provide the country with much needed economic reprieve. But with Hezbollah so ensconced in the government, additional sources of revenues will be captured by it, which further consolidates its control of the government.

Further, the negotiations are unlikely to produce the win the United States wants. With the pressure of sanctions, Lebanese officials view the talks as, if not a road to escape sanctions, one that reduces the pressure until after the election next month. Their timing is based on the hopes for a different administration that would have a softer stance toward Iran. Unless serious changes are made in the Lebanese government, it is the political class and its Iranian patron that will take any rewards from the deal.

Lebanese kleptocrats have nothing to lose by participating in these talks. While showing flexibility on the issue the United States cares about, they will be hard to convince with a new government. However, the Lebanese people, after a terrible year of protests and severe crisis, have everything to lose with the fateful return of Hariri as prime minister.

Patricia Karam is regional director for the Middle East at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy.

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